by Celeste Montaño

[Ed. note: an earlier version of this blog didn’t mention the research of Ann M. Martin, a science educator who has been tracking and writing about gender in Google Doodles since 2011. This piece, and our corresponding action page, have both been updated to credit her and her work, which is excellent and important and only recently came to our attention. Ann’s metrics and methods are different from ours, but her conclusions about gender are the same, and we are excited to combine our data and power toward  our shared goal of fair and accurate representation of women and people of color in public spaces, of which Google Doodles are only a part.]

In January, Google featured Zora Neale Hurston on its U.S. homepage, and the Internet loved it.

via Google

What started with a Google Doodle quickly became the impetus for a wider celebration of Hurston’s life and work. People on my Tumblr dashboard were talking about the Doodle just minutes after it went up, while Facebook and Twitter provided dozens of links to articles about Hurston. The excitement was steady throughout the day, and even continued a couple days after the Doodle was taken down.

In case you haven’t heard the term, Google Doodles are the drawings and animations that often replace the Google logo on holidays or birthdays of historical figures. Sometimes the Doodles are seen worldwide (called “Global Doodles”), but mostly they’re reserved for the country in which the holiday or individual is best known, as was the case with Hurston—her Doodle was only visible on Google’s U.S. homepage.

Google Doodles honor people that have made significant contributions to the world in their lifetimes. Like postage stamps, you can only be honored with a Doodle posthumously. The very first Doodle to celebrate an individual appeared in 2001 in honor of Monet, but the Doodles didn’t start making frequent appearances on Google’s homepage until around 2010. Few of them get as much attention as Hurston’s. So what was special about this one?

Here’s a theory: maybe it was special because it’s one of the few times that the Internet saw Google honor a black woman on its front page. Maybe it was special because it’s uncommon for Google to celebrate historical women of color.

For a while now, we at SPARK have noticed that white men get featured on the Google homepage all the time, whereas women of color are rarely honored. But it wasn’t until September 2013 that we set out to find the exact numbers. We started researching, pouring through hundreds of Google Doodles for months. And it turns out that from 2010-2013, Google celebrated 445 individuals on its various homepages throughout the world. 19 were women of color, 54 were white women, 82 were men of color, and an overwhelming 275 were white men.

About half of those 19 women of color appeared in 2013 alone, so at least we can say there’s been some progress. There were 24 Global Doodles (Doodles visible on every Google homepage around the world) that same year, two of which featured black women. This makes 2013 the first year that celebrated a woman of color with a Global Doodle, which is basically the highest honor that Google gives to historical figures. And yes, it really took until 2013. But despite this great moment in Google Doodle history, there hasn’t been a single Asian, Latina, or indigenous woman featured in a Global Doodle as of February 2014.

If I’d heard about this a few years ago, I would’ve dismissed everything with a shrug and made excuses for Google. I used to think that up until a few decades ago, everyone except rich white men were too oppressed to achieve anything significant. And I’m definitely not the only one who’s thought this way! But it’s actually ridiculous and a complete lie that white men have done everything. How can that be, when they’re a minority in the world? Not to mention that black and brown people didn’t just sit around for thousands of years and wait for the white people to “discover” them, despite what history textbooks imply.

Now that the SPARK team has (almost) recovered from being totally mind-blown by the statistics we’ve uncovered, we’re demanding that Google make a concerted effort to change such a blatant imbalance. We want them to acknowledge the problem, but we also want more: we want Google to publicly commit to improving these numbers. We’d be happy to help out—in fact, we’ve already gotten a head start by compiling a list of historical heroes that totally deserve Doodles, and that way Google has to do less research.

As mentioned, the Doodles have made progress in 2013, something that has continued in 2014. About half the Doodles in January were dedicated to women—a few people that we had on our list of awesome historical heroes even got Doodled. And by celebrating five women of color in the first two months of this year, there have already been more women of color in 2014 than there were in 2010, 2011, and 2012. This is probably thanks in part to people like Ann M. Martin, a science educator who has been tracking gender in Google Doodles dating back to 2001.

But small changes are not enough. We need to talk about why the numbers have been skewed for so long, and what it says about how we view history—whose achievements are important, whose achievements we celebrate, and whose achievements are erased. Google Doodles may seem lighthearted, especially when accompanied by quirky games and animation, but in reality they have emerged as a new manifestation of who we value as a society, a sign of who “matters.” Just like statues, stamps, and national holidays, you know that if someone is featured on Google’s homepage, they’ve done something important.

We’re asking Google to make improvements, but this project is bigger than Google Doodles. It’s is about becoming visible in a society that erases our history and our existence; it’s about acknowledging and celebrating our part in building this world. So we’re asking Google to Doodle Us. Not the SPARK team specifically, but people like us: women, people of color, people with disabilities, queer people, trans people. We’re asking Google to draw our histories, our achievements, our strength, our heroes, our fighters and foremothers. You can’t keep ignoring us. We’re here, and we’ve always been here.

Get all the data | Sign the petition | Contribute to our list of historical heroes